Men’s Common Room

Men’s Common Room of a Bygone Era

Lakshman Abeygunawardena

 When I entered the Colombo Medical Faculty in June 1962, the “Freshers” as the new entrants were called, were debarred from entering the Men’s Common Room (on their own) during the first two weeks when they were subjected to the traditional rag. It had been so in previous years and was yet another tradition maintained by all medical students in years that followed. However, it is to be noted that most of the ragging took place in the Common Room itself! All alumni of the Colombo Medical School are familiar with the place where many unforgettable events that I am about to describe took place. But for the benefit of anyone who has already forgotten where it was, the Men’s Common Room occupied part of the ground floor of the Main Administration Building abutting Kynsey Road. Main access however was through the quadrangle near the Koch Clock Tower which served as a parking lot for the students’ vehicles. It was also accessible through the canteen which was right next to it.

The Common Room provided many facilities to the male students who spent almost all their free time in the relaxed atmosphere it provided. The unofficial custodian of the Common Room was “Marker” (so called because he had originally been recruited to mark scores at the billiards table), whose real name Ranasinghe was known only to a few. In a previous issue of the CoMSAA newsletter, I had written more about this character who was known to generations of medical students. The Common Room was well furnished with a large number of wooden arm chairs, some cane chairs and small tables. The “miniature” billiards table which occupied one corner was replaced with a full-sized “Tournament Model” during our time as students. An ancient radiogram with a few 78 rpm records and the Marker’s personal cupboard were on that side. Marker’s cupboard which had a number of drawers was kept under lock and key at all times by Marker himself, with his heavy bunch of keys safely tucked in at his waist. The Common Room provided facilities for a number of other indoor games such as table tennis, carom, bridge, draughts and chess. In one corner was a telephone booth, next to which were the day’s newspapers that were fixed on the familiar wooden structure against the wall. “Marker”, trudged daily from the Maradana Railway Station. Come sun or rain, he CoMSAA Newsletter, Vol 4: Issue 3 Page4 used to be at the Common Room sharp at 7.30 in the morning, each day. One of his first duties was to place securely, the day’s newspapers on that wooden structure.

Picture 1 – common room and billiards table Hanging on the walls of the Common Room were photographs of past Medical Students Union (MSU) Committees. I wonder what happened to the old photographs (picture 2) including the one that accompanies this article! They were not there when I visited the place some time ago. Picture 2 – Medical students’ union committee – 1965 – 1966 Coming to the important events that took place within the four walls of the Men’s Common Room, pride of place has to be given to the annual MSU elections and the grand finale where the results used to be announced. It was at this event that prizes were awarded to winners of the indoor games tournaments that had been conducted in the preceding weeks.

MSU election night was looked forward to by many as it was about the only occasion when alcoholic beverages were officially permitted to be served in any building of the Colombo Medical Faculty. As a member of the MSU Committee in 1966, I remember accompanying a few colleagues to a pub on Chatham Street in Fort (either Globe Hotel or White House Inn) one afternoon, to purchase a couple of barrels of draft beer in preparation for the great CoMSAA Newsletter, Vol 4: Issue 3 Page5 event that evening. We took time tasting “samples” of draft beer which were provided to us free of charge by the management. All MSU meetings (which often turned out to be controversial and stormy), were held there.

I very well remember the late Consultant Thoracic Surgeon Mr. A.T.S. Paul, who was then President of the GMOA, addressing the students as a guest speaker at a specially convened meeting during a GMOA strike. Among other such great occasions was witnessing Sri Lanka’s World Snooker champion M.J.M. Lafir playing an exhibition game of billiards and some fantastic trick shots on our own table right there in the Common Room. Even during the prolonged period when I was domiciled abroad, I never failed to visit the Colombo Medical Faculty during my annual visits to Sri Lanka. I always spent a few minutes seated in a chair in the Men’s Common Room, nostalgically recalling my student days. The place has undergone many changes (see Picture 1). My saddest visit to the Men’s Common Room undoubtedly was in 1988, when perhaps for the first time in its history, the Men’s Common Room was the place where the body of the late medical student Thirimavithana was placed for public veneration when it was brought to the Colombo Medical Faculty. Padmasiri Thirimavithana who was a prominent student activist, was brutally killed during the failed insurrection which took place during that unfortunate period in the late eighties.

Reprinted with permission from the author

(Sorry, the pictures in the article could not be reproduced due to formatting issues. If any one can provide me some pictures, either old or current,  in Jpeg  format I will insert them in the article, Sam Samarasinghe)